Congo volcano's lava flows short of Goma; 5 dead in crash

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GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo unleashed lava that destroyed homes on the outskirts of Goma, but witnesses said Sunday that the city of 2 million had been mostly spared after the volcano erupted at night and sent thousands fleeing in panic.

Authorities said at least five people had died in a road crash while trying to leave Goma, but cautioned it was too early to give a death toll in the hardest hit communities. More than 500 homes had been destroyed, according to Constant Ndima, military governor for the affected region.

Residents said there was little warning before the dark sky turned a fiery red, leading to fears that the eruption could cause the same kind of devastation as the last time in 2002 when hundreds died.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission had said late Saturday that it didn't appear the lava was flowing toward Goma based on reconnaissance flights, but untold thousands still set off fearing the worst. Some boarded boats onto Lake Kivu while others attempted to reach Mount Goma, the highest elevation point. At least 3,000 fled across the nearby border into Rwanda.

On Sunday, residents ventured out to assess the damage after a night of panic. Smoke rose from smoldering heaps of lava in the Buhene area near the city.

“We have seen the loss of almost an entire neighborhood," said Innocent Bahala Shamavu. “All the houses in Buhene neighborhood were burned and that’s why we are asking all the provincial authorities and authorities at the national level as well as all the partners, all the people of good faith in the world, to come to the aid of this population.”

Elsewhere witnesses said lava had engulfed one highway connecting Goma with the city of Beni. However, the airport appeared to be spared the same fate as 2002 when lava flowed onto the runways.

Goma is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the U.N. peacekeeping mission. While Goma is home to many U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers, much of surrounding eastern Congo is under threat from a myriad of armed groups vying for control of the region’s mineral resources.

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Associated Press writer Jean Yves Kamale in Kinshasa, Congo contributed.

Justin Kabumba Katumwa, The Associated Press